Making oneself in one’s own image – Ravi Shankar

Somya Gurjar

Ravi Shankar EttethThe modern age has found its soul in the cell phone. Aristotle has written about the contrast between philautia, which is rooted in self-worth, and pleonexia, the desire to grab an unfair share of what is not yours. – Ravi Shankar

In public life, sensitivity is hardly ever at a premium. Last week, Somya Gurjar, a member of the Rajasthan Women’s Commission, made a mockery of her role as an upholder of women’s rights by taking a selfie with a rape victim. It was one for her album, a memento of bizarre voyeurism that captured the agony and humiliation of a violated woman. She quit, but the implications of her action stay relevant. It exemplifies contemporary concerns. With mankind in a hurry, the selfie is a  21st century compulsion, which  captures and stores every moment of intimacy in megabytes. In the teeming beehive of obscurity, the only slogan of identity is: “Love me, love my cellphone”.

In the age of social media, the reigning emotion is philautia, or self-love in Greek. The selfie phenomenon represents modern philautia by self-celebration in the age of anonymity. We post our photos in various poses, with friends, politicians and celebrities on Instagram and Facebook. The selfie is self-love on steroids—anyone can be an instant celebrity. Friends of friends grin inanely in party pictures, with vampire makeup and  Frankenstein grins. Selfies finagle your attention towards someone’s Italian itinerary in which you aren’t remotely interested in. They soothe egos  that glow in the reflected glory of celebrities—“See, I’m cuddling up to Shah Rukh; I’m posing with Narendra Modi; I’m having baklava in Istanbul; I’m with my gorgeous blonde skiing instructor in Sheregesh.” I shoot, therefore I am. The selfie drives the world saying, “Look, I was there! I am somebody.” Vanity is an irresistible value and the selfie is instant gratification, unlike the decades it would take to build a monument or a statue. Facebook and Instagram are witnesses of our times. The president, Prime Minister and ministers have their own Facebook pages. Barack Obama and Narendra Modi are no longer selfie-struck, but many world leaders are addicts. All actors are on Instagram. Painters and dramatists tweet. Cell phone cameras record history in real time. Imagine, if Hannibal had an iPhone, he would’ve taken a selfie with his favourite elephant while crossing the Alps. Babur would have used his smart phone while standing in front of a demolished Ram temple. Dual camera magic would show a grinning Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed with Indira Gandhi, after signing the proclamation of Emergency. But back then, important moments were about adventure and gravitas.

We live in times of short attention spans. A rape draws loud condemnation for the span  of a few TV hours. A murder even less. A government proclamation or programme is the talk of just a day. A food show, a catwalk clip, a suicide attack in Kabul or an interview with Obama flickers through public attention like scenes in an old newsreel. Thus, the selfie is the only stable affirmation of our existence, a vestige of vanity in the great obscurity that is the rush of the world.

The modern age has found its soul in the cell phone. Aristotle has written about the contrast between philautia, which is rooted in self-worth, and pleonexia, the desire to grab an unfair share of what is not yours. Gurjar is no Mary Ellen Mark, whose photographs of India’s dispossessed women brought world attention on sexual exploitation. She was capturing her own context for posterity. An image that is likely to be deleted from her phone, however, is the one after the finger-press of her fall from grace. – The New Indian Express, 3 July 2016

» Ravi Shankar Etteth, professionally known by his full name, or as Ravi Shankar in The New Indian Express, is an Indian author and cartoonist. Contact him at

Mary Ellen Mark


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